Sally Hemings play explores creativity and Americanism

By Heather Hennigan
Contributing Writer

On Wednesday, April 18, the final installation of the University’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings series will be staged. The performance, entitled “Sally Hemings: A Montage,” will take place in the Terrace Room of the Elaine Langone Center at 7:30 p.m., and features faculty and staff members Shara McCallum, John Hunter, Ghislaine McDayter, Shallary Duncan, Nisan Trotter and Mark Hutchinson. The montage was created by professor of English Carmen Gillespie and professor emeritus Robert Gainer and merges various creative explorations of the Hemings/Jefferson narrative including: Sandra Seaton’s play “Sally,”  Madison Hemings’s “Memoirs,” Mendi and Keith Obadike’s soundscape and film “American Cypher: A Stereo Helix for Sally Hemings,” photographer Carrie Mae Weems’s “Jefferson Suiteand Garrett Fisher’s opera “Sally Hemings Wakes.” Gainer directs the performance.

“When I began to investigate the artistic explorations of the Hemings and Jefferson story, I was astonished by the wide range of expressions that I found. I thought that it might be interesting for us to engage the story interdisciplinarily by interspersing these various interpretations. The combination of artistic interpretations reflects the reality of the mystery of Sally Hemings herself. She is literally unknowable and, therefore, can only be understood through multiple and divergent points of view,” Gillespie said.

“Although brought on board to serve primarily as stage director, I was also asked to collaborate with [Carmen] to devise and dramaturgically create a montage of different artists’ responses–fiction, non-fiction, sound and visual–to the Sally Hemings narrative. The writing and devising of this performance piece has evolved collaboratively throughout the semester, adding to the excitement of discovery that accompanies such an exploratory group process. What I most value in working with Carmen is that her mode of inquiry into subjects and themes about which she is most passionate is not limited to one mode of exploration or expression. She always guides her students and community to confront our society’s complex historical and cultural narratives through encounters with multiple artistic voices and varied critical and scholarly viewpoints,” Gainer said.

Stadler Center for Poetry director McCallum, who plays the role of Sally in this performance, has not performed on stage since her high school years. “I’ve truly enjoyed this opportunity to reconnect with that aspect of myself. I have been aided enormously in this endeavor under the superb direction of Bob Gainer and through the incredible vision for this production that has been the product of Bob and Carmen Gillespie’s imagination and hard work. I think [this experience] has brought up new ways for me to think about all the vexing issues about race in the U.S. and its relationship to history, culture and biology–issues that are inescapable for many of us, but certainly for me. As a black woman who is taken for white by most people, my connection to Sally’s perspective is obviously strengthened by the fact that I’ve lived an analogous experience of race. Less obviously, there’s also the fact that I’m a mother–as she was–and can understand her choices from that perspective as well,” McCallum said.

“One of the aspects of the production that was also intriguing to me was the aspect of creative exploration of the topic by faculty and staff who do not primarily consider themselves artists. This production is a joint endeavor of the Griot Institute and the Presidential Arts Initiative and, as such, endeavors to explore artistry and creativity for everyone. The class we sponsored last semester, Extreme Creativity, allowed students who are arts and non-arts majors to examine the arts and their engagements with creativity. The Arts Initiative seeks in part to involve the entirety of the Bucknell community in the arts and ‘Sally Hemings: A Montage,’ with the exception of Mark Hutchinson, involves faculty and staff who are not professional performers and allows them to access creative aspects of themselves in ways that mirror the experiences of the students in the Extreme Creativity class. I hope that it will be exciting for students to have the opportunity to see their professors and staff members engaged in taking chances and expanding their creative horizons in unexpected and challenging ways,” Gillespie said.

“The Sally Hemings/Thomas Jefferson narrative is an essential and under-explored American origin story. Investigation of the story allows us to confront collectively the issues of race, class and gender that are as central to our realities–to who we are as a country–as is our most fundamental ideal, the proposition that we are endowed with inalienable rights. The Hemings/Jefferson story conflates these contradictions and forces us to deal simultaneously with the truth of our histories in an inclusive and honest way that will enable us to proceed with integrity, and, perhaps, have a better opportunity to actualize our foundational ideals,” Gillespie said.

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